Stephanie Hampton, Data Synthesis and Mentorship Enthusiast

NCEAS Portraits: Special Women-in-Science Edition

By Jenny Seifert

Any proverbially flies that were on the wall during our conversation would have noted that Stephanie Hampton is a passionate spokesperson for synthesis science. A freshwater biologist dedicated to the synthesis approach, her research centers around identifying what we can learn with the data already in hand and where the pressing knowledge gaps lie.

While describing her work as a lot of serendipity, a current focus of Hampton’s is broadening the understanding of what happens to freshwater ecosystems during winter, an area she says benefits greatly from synthesis. The speed with which lakes and rivers across the world are losing ice cover and the logistical difficulty of conducting research in the winter make it critical to build a collaborative global network to connect the relevant people and data.

“We have hundreds of years of data, and we can do so much more by analyzing those data to come up with some answers. It will be a lot faster than what we would do if we were just trying to collect new data,” said Hampton, who is the director for the Center of Environmental Research, Education and Outreach at Washington State University.

The hats Hampton has worn in the NCEAS community include, first, as co-leader of a working group that studied 60 years of data on plankton in Russia’s Lake Baikal and then as the center’s deputy director from 2006 to 2013. While deputy director, she spearheaded our former Distributed Graduate Seminar program, which connected graduate students in ecology from across the country to tackle a question together through data synthesis.

“To watch the students come away from their projects with this sense that collaborating is a totally normal way to do science and that sharing data is totally normal, to change those mindsets so early on is very powerful,” she said.

When it comes to women in science, Hampton also emphasizes the power of mentorship and giving a leg up to the next generation.

Is there another woman in science who has been influential to you?

SH: One of the things I learned after being a postdoc, when I was in established career-track positions, was that your mentors can always be your mentors. You’re not done with needing mentors when you leave your postdoc or grad degree. We all need mentors, and it’s insane to stop using them. If I’m facing a difficult decision or situation, I still need people who I can call and know they’re on my side.

One of the people who I still call is Katherine (Kay) Gross. She is really good at identifying opportunities to give a hand to the next person. It’s the whole idea of, when a woman gets through a door that was difficult to get through, then what she does is hold the door and offer a hand to those behind her. Of course, that’s women helping women, but it’s also about senior colleagues helping junior colleagues. I think I have been equitable in connecting both my male and female mentees with opportunities, but I also think it's important to be reflective about it and check myself to be sure that I am being equitable.

What notable contributions to your field have women made?

SH: I think it’s notable that, in a lot of the highly collaborative work in aquatic science, many of the central leaders are women. It’s really cool to look at some of these big synthesis efforts and to see that a lot of the first authors and principal investigators are women, and the author lists are very gender balanced.

Is there anything particularly challenging or helpful about the collaborative synthesis model for women?

SH: I think it’s both. One of the things that NCEAS always took very seriously in their working groups was getting good gender balance and, as much as possible, balancing career stages too. I think a danger when we ask people to balance the gender of their group is, frequently, male leaders or sometimes female leaders may have a hard time identifying senior female colleagues to join the group. We would end up with a working group where all of the women are junior and all the men are senior, and it exaggerates that power differential.

One of the things that is really helpful about NCEAS and working group models is that it is a big boost to networking and collaboration, and of course we know those are things that are really great for the career. If there are trends in science where we see women not being invited to give talks at universities as much as men, or invited to panels and the sort of things that are important for your research profile, then getting involved in NCEAS is helping to raise your profile, making you a more visible part of a network of colleagues who are more likely to remember that you’re available to give talks and to serve on panels.

What can institutions like NCEAS do better at elevating the contributions of women?

SH: I think we still need to be really mindful about gender balance. It’s tempting to think that when our statistics improve, that’s good enough. The truth is that it remains a challenge and we’ve made this progress by being mindful.

This is actually advice from Kay Gross, now that she’s on my mind. She said, when somebody calls you and asks you to nominate somebody for an award or for a panel, tell them you’ll call them back. Give yourself a chance to think about it, because it may be that a man’s name is the first that comes to mind, but if you just thought about it for another 5 or 10 minutes, an equally qualified woman would also come to your mind.

What is THE issue in women in science that is most important to you?

SH: One of the things that’s on my mind a lot is mid-career women. I think it’s on my mind because it’s one of the issues the Association of Faculty Women here at Washington State University is talking about – the bottleneck where women get stuck at the associate professor level. In many cases we’ve done a good job of recruiting women into junior faculty positions, and we’re making good progress on supporting them so they’re getting tenure and choosing to stay. But then getting them to that next level, where they are the leaders, not just at the university but in other organizations, is a challenge.

Meet other NCEAS women in science in the Special Women-in-Science Edition of NCEAS Portraits.